BERLIN (Reuters) - German President Horst Koehler unexpectedly resigned on Monday after a wave of criticism over his comments about military action abroad, in a move that compounds conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel’s problems.
Already battling a euro zone debt crisis, sinking poll ratings and policy scraps with an increasingly awkward coalition partner, Merkel must now quickly find a successful candidate for president, whose role is largely ceremonial.
A failure to get her candidate installed would be widely seen as a blow to her authority.
Merkel’s conservatives had backed Koehler for re-election last year but her waning popularity means Merkel may find it difficult to push through her — as yet unknown — candidate if the opposition center-left camp puts up a strong rival.
Though responsible for signing bills into law, the German President has traditionally had little influence on the business of politics in Berlin, even if Koehler himself did offer criticism of the government that was unusually direct at times.
“I regret that my comments could lead to a misunderstanding about an important and difficult question for our nation,” an ashen-faced Koehler told reporters in Berlin.
His resignation takes immediate effect. The President of the Bundesrat upper house, currently Social Democrat Bremen mayor, Jens Boehrnsen, assumes the president’s role for now.
Koehler, 67, has already signed off a law allowing Europe’s biggest economy to contribute to a 750 billion euro emergency debt package, and his resignation had little market impact.
As a former head of the International Monetary Fund, Koehler has spoken out on the debt crisis enveloping the euro zone but his departure will have little impact on German policy.
“It has nothing to do with government policy,” said Gerd Langguth, political scientist at the University of Bonn. “The President is a man of little political experience who saw himself as overstrained.”
A special Federal Assembly, made up of all 622 members of parliament and an equal number of delegates sent by the 16 state assemblies, must elect the next German president within 30 days.
Koehler, in office since 2004, said in a radio interview on his return from a trip to Afghanistan this month that German military action abroad also served economic interests.
A country like Germany with a heavy reliance on foreign trade, Koehler said, must know that “in emergencies military intervention is necessary to uphold our interests, like for example free trade routes, for example to prevent regional instabilities which could have a negative impact on our chances in terms of trade, jobs and income.”
Opposition politicians seized on the comments and accused Koehler of “gunboat diplomacy.” The row underscores the sensitivity of military issues in Germany even 65 years after the end of World War Two and Nazi rule.
Koehler was unhappy about the reaction to his remarks.
“The criticism has gone so far as to suggest I supported deployments by the army which are not covered by the constitution. This criticism is completely unjustified,” he said. “It shows a lack a respect for my office.
Merkel paid tribute to Koehler as a president who “won over peoples’ hearts” and said she regretted his decision to resign. But analysts suggested he had been naive.
“It is not the president’s duty to intervene in day-to-day politics,” said Wichard Woyke, a political scientist from Muenster University. “But with his comments made on the flight back from Afghanistan, he did get mixed up in it. So he shouldn’t be so surprised at such the harsh criticism.”
Additional reporting by Brian Rohan and Dave Graham; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Golovnina